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These Carports Are Generating Juice

On a gummy summer day in 2013, a shareholder named Jeff Vogel walked out to his car on the vast parking lot at the 757-unit Celtic Park co-op in Woodside, Queens. After baking in the sun all day, the car’s interior was as hot as a brick oven. Vogel, who is concerned with reducing the co-op’s energy costs and taking care of the planet, hit on a genius idea: why not put car ports on the parking lot, then put solar panels on them and on the roofs of the co-op’s 25 buildings!

Charles Herzog, the co-op board president, was receptive to the idea, and a solar energy contractor was brought in to make a presentation to the seven-member board. But the cost of solar panels was still on the high side, and the economics didn’t quite work.

Then climate-change-denier Donald Trump got elected president in 2016. Suddenly, government tax breaks and incentives appeared to be in jeopardy.

“After the 2016 election, we revisited the idea,” Herzog says. “We met with a different solar provider, Best Energy Power, who had put solar panels on car ports. He put together a proposal, and we visited one of his jobs, a Pathmark supermarket in the Bronx, where solar panels on car ports and the building’s roof were generating 40 percent of the electricity needs.”

The cost of solar panels had come down, and healthy tax breaks and incentives made a project feasible. Now the board made a smart business decision. “We announced this at our annual meeting in the summer of 2017,” Herzog says, “and we asked shareholders to take part in a solar committee. Eight people volunteered. They checked out the references of Best Energy Power, and one of the committee members came up with a few alternative contractors, but none of them had experience with car ports. We signed the contract with B.E.P. in the fall of 2017.”

Meanwhile, the board was working to refinance its underlying mortgage, which it did the following summer, setting aside $12 million for capital projects. Among those projects was a complete modernization of the co-op’s 24 elevators, which cost $4.8 million and was completed earlier this month. The co-op’s long-time, onsite property manager, Miriam Fardey-Nafa of Metro Management Development, says: “It was hectic. You have to be very organized to handle two projects at once.”

The solar project cost $3.3 million up front – but this was softened by a $1.1 million federal tax credit, a rebate from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the projected $180,000 savings on electricity costs during the first year of operation. The project will produce one-third of the co-op’s electricity needs and is expected to pay for itself in seven years. As a bonus, the co-op has already taken a major step toward reducing its carbon emissions, as required by the city’s new Climate Mobilization Act.

Looking back, Herzog is thrilled with the elevator and solar projects but admits the board should have done some things a bit differently. “Some shareholders were in favor of the solar project, and there were some very vocal people against it,” he says. “That’s why we formed the committee. Our contractor told us we were the only co-op he’s worked with that involved the shareholders. I think that helped, in terms of letting the shareholder see that we were trying to be as transparent as possible.”

The board hired a consultant to guide its elevator modernization project, but did not hire one for the solar project. “In hindsight,” Herzog says, “I would engage a solar consultant to oversee the work and manage the contractor.”

That hiccup aside, the car ports are providing an unexpected benefit in addition to generating electricity and protecting most of the shareholders’ 192 vehicles. “The car ports are very visible,” Herzog says. “I think that will give us a reputation as being green and forward-thinking. It becomes a positive for people looking to buy apartments, which increases our buildings’ value.”

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